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There seems to be a lot of disagreement about cooking "light" (as in texture) scrambled eggs, which would seem to be one of the simplest of foods. (To be clear, I'm specifically asking about the "standard" light and puffy variety of scrambled eggs here, rather than the creamy, very small-curd, slow-cooked scrambled eggs which are often served wetter and heavier.)

There seem to be two main camps: (1) cook your eggs in a blazing hot pan as quickly as possible, or (2) cook over low or medium-low heat and stir frequently until the eggs come up to temperature over anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Adherents of the first method claim that the fast cooking time will keep the eggs tender and the hot pan and burst of initial steam created will puff them up. Adherents of the second method claim that gentle cooking will keep the eggs tender and the long cooking time will give more opportunity for steam to gradually increase lightness and texture.

The goals of both camps appear to be similar, but they suggest radically different techniques to achieve them. (For some examples of this disagreement in answers on this site, see here for a question whose top-rated answer argues for cooking in "seconds not minutes," and here for a similar question whose top-rated answer says the solution is "at least ten minutes of slow cooking.")

Note that this question also applies to omelet technique, where some chefs insist that the only way to produce a light tender omelet is cooking slowly over low heat, while others seem to follow the Julia Child method of cooking a thin layer of egg in a very hot pan for only a matter of seconds.

In any case, my question: Is there any scientific rationale to resolve this dispute? Is one method actually proven better than the other through experiment? (Or do both methods have proven advantages? Or maybe other aspects of technique can influence results and allow both methods to be successful, but under different conditions?)

EDIT: Based on discussion in comments, let me try to make this more specific. We can look at, for example, the editors of Cooks Illustrated, who present in their experiments to produce "Fluffy Scrambled Eggs":

We've tried cooking scrambled eggs over medium heat but the eggs got tough, dried out, and overcoagulated, like a badly made meringue that "weeps." A hot pan will begin to cook eggs instantaneously, for the quickest coagulation.... Two eggs should cook into big curds in about 30 seconds. The larger the curds, the more steam is pocketed inside, and the more the eggs will continue to cook once off the heat. We like scrambled eggs soft and juicy, so they look positively underdone when we make that final fold and push them out of the pan.

On the other hand, Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking states:

The Key to Scrambled Eggs: Slow Cooking Scrambled eggs made in the usual quick, offhand way are usually hard and forgettable. The key to moist scrambled eggs is low heat and patience; they will take several minutes to cook.... Texture is determined by how and when the eggs are disturbed. Large irregular curds result if the cook lets the bottom layer set for some time before scraping to distribute the heat.

McGee doesn't explicitly mention fluffiness or lightness, but I've seen other proponents of the slow method mention it. What these two sources do agree on is that the opposing method makes eggs "tough," "hard," and "dried out," but their chosen method keeps eggs "moist" and "juicy" as well as "soft" and "tender." (Notably, after discounting the fast method for scrambled eggs, McGee goes on immediately to point out how a hot, fast cooking method is a requirement for good omelets.)

These are two sources which explicitly tend to base their claims on detailed experiment and food science. Other than McGee's mentioning of the ability to alter final curd size for slower eggs, there seems to be little distinction in the rhetoric for these opposing methods.

So, are there actual advantages for one method over the other (aside from time for fast eggs and better ability to vary curd size for slow eggs)? If no, why do even food science experts make such strongly worded conflicting claims? Do both methods -- as Tom Raymond seems to argue in his answer -- produce effectively equivalent results, with time being the main difference? Or is there some truth to the any claims for superiority in at least some aspects for one side or the other?

I know this is a broad question, but some possible information that might begin to answer it: Anyone know of experimental studies (or summaries of them) that actually measure moisture content or volume or tenderness in different egg cooking methods to corroborate the various descriptions of "moist/juicy" and "soft/tender/fluffy" vs. "tough/hard" and "dried out"? Are there theoretical reasons why either method should work better in some aspects (e.g., how egg proteins coagulate at different speeds, etc.)?

Perhaps the consensus is that one can cook good eggs either way once one understands the subtleties of cooking eggs that way. But even if that's true, why are many authoritative sources so quick to dismiss the other method? (Perhaps there's even an important history to this dispute that explains some of it; otherwise, I'm not sure how to explain such a strong conflict.)

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    That is some research! +1 for the content! :) – Neels Nov 21 '14 at 6:02
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    As a chef, I find that both methods with the same care and attention (don't burn the bottom) result in exactly the same results. If in a hot pan you'd stir 50 times in 30 seconds then at a low heat you should be doing the same amount of turns but slower :-). Dry or tough eggs are just overcooked eggs regardless of cooking method. – Doug Nov 21 '14 at 14:02
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    Note - The aim of the Cook's Illustrated method is "Fluffy" scrambled eggs which they encourage with lots of milk for steam and a cooking method that applies sufficient heat to set the eggs along the bottom of the pan which encases (for lack of a better word) the heft of the curd. McGee's scrambled eggs technique is designed specifically to avoid this encasement. McGee's doesn't add milk and his lower temperature and constant stirring control the temperature and protein coagulation of the eggs under heat. CI's higher temperature is deigned to achieve a distinctly different dish. – Stephen Eure Nov 22 '14 at 10:14
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    My own argument, probably unsatisfying, is that "scrambled eggs" no longer means one thing. Most restaurants have to include time management in their considerations for how they choose to prepare dishes. I would suggest the the hot-pan-fluffy-scramble method with milk to steam and soften is a way to deliver eggs quickly. I would also guess that most people are so accustomed to this way of eating eggs that they would be confused by the texture of slowly cooked scrambled eggs (I have never been served eggs that way in a restaurant). So...two lengthy comments for my 2¢. Not really an answer. – Stephen Eure Nov 22 '14 at 10:23
  • @StephenEure - thanks for your comments. I agree McGee may be after something different. That said, (1) many, many sources also claim that slow cooking will produce the "fluffiest" eggs (or similar adjective), and (2) I don't think McGee's method is meant to avoid large curds at all, since he doesn't require constant stirring at the end. In the sentence after my quote: "Large irregular curds result if the cook lets the bottom layer set for some time before scraping to distribute the heat." I read this as options for curd size/texture, rather than a preference for only constant stirring. – Athanasius Nov 25 '14 at 13:55
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I don't have a scientific backing to what I am going to say, but still I will try to make my point clear!

Cooking eggs is more of an intuitive thing. The fast vs. slow thing comes more from your own rendezvous with it.

Like in my house, when we say omelet, only my husband is allowed to put hands on it because he gets that perfect round thing without breaking any of the edges every single time he does it. I will share his method:

  • Take a flat pan and heat it good enough.

  • Drizzle a little oil on it and rotate the pan once so that oil gets to the sides.

  • Now all you need to do is pour your beaten eggs on the pan and slowly cook it on a low flame until the edges start separating from the pan automatically(atleast it will come out easily when you raise it with spatula)

And bang on, our omlete gets cooked pretty fine everytime with a very soft and fluffy texture.

But when you say scrambled eggs, I would follow a different methodology in which I would:

  • Take a pan with deep base and heat it good enough.
  • Pour very little oil, just so that eggs don't stick to the pan.
  • Pour the egg mix and keep the pan on very high flame and stir the thing vigorously until the eggs are cooked and it looks ready.

Basically what I think is, when you cook anything on a high flame, you need to stir it along so that the food does not stick to the bottom and gets burnt(even when you are using a non stick pan, eggs might get stuck in a minute or so), which you can do while making scrambled eggs but can't do while making an omelet obviously.

I hope next time you put your hands on it, you will listen to your heart!! Happy Eggs!! :)

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The matter of time efficiency could be seen as that which determines the answer:

The first thing that caught my attention about your description of the two camps is the language that you use (or quote?) for their outcomes. Both camps "keep the eggs tender". And then, of the eggs, the one camp manages to "puff them up" while the other suffices to "increase lightness and texture", the two of which descriptions are clearly interchangeable. This made me realize that strictly in terms of outcome the two methods are not at variance, but only in terms of how those outcomes are achieved.

Since scientific method involves, in the following order,

  1. generating a hypothesis
  2. conducting replicable experiments
  3. setting forth fixed conclusions based on measurable results

and since both camps as you define them fulfill each of these requirements, we would technically have to say that the science on the matter is already in.

Either "quick and hot" or "slow and temperate" are hypotheses. And each method offers up of a replicable step-by-step process by which to achieve measurable results against which fixed conclusions can be drawn. (The emphasis here is necessarily on process since all else is equal ...same eggs, same oil, same pan, etc., or, perhaps more to the point, are treated as non-impactful even if they are at variance.) And since in either event the outcomes prove to be equally agreeable to all relevant senses, it appears as though the only substantial difference is that of time itself.

If one were to include time efficiency therefore as a criterion for what it is that defines "better", (which is plainly optional and thus likely at the root of the conflict), it very much appears as though the "quick and hot" camp has in fact provided proof which classes as scientific and which thus elevates it above its slower alternative. Beyond the scope of human emotions and all the subtleties of human interaction, I for one can't really think of any scenario where getting the same "goal outcome" in less time through use of an alternate means would not find itself classed as superior by default, perhaps even by obviation. All that aside, I use the slower method but for uniquely different reasons: I don't like my scrambled eggs to be quite all the way done.

[ADDENDUM]

As reflected in the chart below, nearly three quarters of the edible portion of the egg is water. Combined over again with small amounts of water or milk, as is widely preferred, this ratio rises all the more significantly (say 3 tbsp of added liquid per 4 eggs). Since the remaining classes of ingredients are known, not only by percentages but by how per their unique properties they respond to the addition of heat, (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates), it may be really that all one has to do is state the problem in terms of enthalpy. This would connote of not only their response, by percentages, to the heat of the oil/pan but also to the rate of change (increase in temperature) expected of the water (it too in its percentage), and so the rate at which it aids the oil/pan in imparting heat unto the non-aqueous components. In short, one would have to do one's own science. Here's an online calculator for the thermodynamic properties of water and steam.

enter image description here

  • Well, it's true that I specifically worded my question to emphasize both sides claim to achieve similar goals. But I believe it is an open question whether they actually achieve them to the same degree. Science has debunked many culinary myths where people have claimed X happens to taste/texture etc. when it actually doesn't. There are people here (and many chefs on record) who say, "if scrambled eggs are bad, you're cooking too fast/hot" or "too slow." Are all of those people delusional? I don't think so. Perhaps there are measurable benefits/drawbacks to one method or the other. – Athanasius Nov 20 '14 at 22:42
  • Think through the following question then. Wouldn't the untold many people who have used either method discovered that, no, it doesn't produce very good results and, accordingly, switched over to the other method? Otherwise they're choosing to eat an undesirable product. The mere fact that one of the two methods has not gained greatly in popularity over the other is its own form of data, and informs us that either method is deemed equally desirable in terms of outcome. This also explains why it is that all of them aren't delusional, yes? – Tom Raywood Nov 20 '14 at 23:35
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    Actually, no, your premise is false, and I can cite a dozen culinary myths off the top of my head where people have continued to do things for many generations believing they were true when they weren't. For one prominent example, the myth that salt makes beans tough, when it actually helps them soften faster. Also, I'm open to the possibility that the two methods achieve goals that are somewhat similar, but actually through different chemical means or emphasizing different aspects in the final product (e.g., method X and Y both achieve A, but X also gets B while ignoring C, but Y gets C). – Athanasius Nov 20 '14 at 23:47
  • That's a false equivalency, Athanasius, (it's not a myth that people like good food and dislike bad food), but I do hope someone is able to point you in the direction of that which satisfies what you have in mind. – Tom Raywood Nov 21 '14 at 0:45
  • So, if I understand you correctly, your entire argument comes down to, "If you like it, it's good (to you)?" I appreciate that you took the time to provide your thoughts, but I'm not really sure I understand how this relates to the "science" you discuss in your answer. Yes, people generally don't eat food that tastes "bad" to them, but they often show great unreliability in double-blind tests for ability to consistently judge one "good" thing "better" in taste to another. Often, the "correct" outcome of culinary methods is judged more by tradition of technique than measurable results. – Athanasius Nov 21 '14 at 1:24

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